Roland Park parents push for middle-school recess

Students need break from tough schedule, they say

  • Anna Shafer, right, enjoys the climbing wall during 6th grade recess at Hampstead Hill Academy.
Anna Shafer, right, enjoys the climbing wall during 6th grade… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
September 23, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

In Roland Park, home to one of Baltimore's highest-performing public schools, dozens of parents are at odds with administrators over an academic perk: recess for middle-schoolers.

In a dispute that mirrors the nationwide debate over students' participation in physical activity, the parents want sixth- through eighth-grade students to have some relief from Roland Park Elementary/Middle School's rigorous academic regimen of 70-minute classes and restricted social time. They say it's an essential part of their children's education.

"I expect teachers to approach kids with a holistic perspective, not just pouring information into their brains," said Sandy Summers, the parent of a seventh-grader and one of about 80 parents advocating for recess at Roland Park.

"If they have their bony little butts glued to a chair for 70 minutes in a row, that's like punishment, it's cruel," said Summers, a public health nurse. "We're not sending our kids to college — they're in middle school — they deserve rest, relaxation, time with their friends, exercise."

But the parents' wishes are running up against the school's budget and scheduling realities, other parents and administrators say.

"I don't know of any parent, teacher or administrator that doesn't support exercise, recess breaks, for kids," said school board Commissioner Bob Heck, who also is a Roland Park parent. "The issue is schedule, staffing and safety — and at the end of the day, the academics always come first in a school."

At the city's Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school that offers middle-school recess, Principal Matt Hornbeck said, "Recess, when it's done right, actually helps focus kids on learning. It can be a terrific, less structured time for students to develop and bond with each other."

But Hornbeck said he has noticed that without adequate supervision, middle school recess can lead to problem behavior. Funding and support are also essential, he said.

Education experts say the debate at Roland Park is being repeated across the country, particularly in campaigns to combat the rise in childhood obesity and other medical problems exacerbated by a lack of physical activity.

"There's tremendous advocacy across the nation for children to be more physically active during the school day," said Melinda Bossenmeyer, president and founder of Peaceful Playgrounds, a California-based organization that serves as a national resource for recess models. "Research breaking in the last five years indicates that [for] anyone who is more physically active, it warms up the brain, helps the brain to grow, so there's more of a push toward getting kids to be more physically active in school, not only for their health but to do better academically."

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report recommending that all students have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every school day.

The report followed a CDC finding last year that recess has a positive impact on school adjustment and classroom behavior. The CDC also found positive associations between recess and indicators of cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behavior.

Although recess is standard in most elementary grades, it's less common in middle school — not just in Baltimore, but also in neighboring counties. Unlike physical education, recess is not state-mandated or regulated.

Sixty percent of city schools — a total of 53 — with middle grades offer recess, while 86 percent of elementary schools do. Neither Baltimore County nor Anne Arundel County offers middle-school recess, though they have robust physical education programs and shorter classes. Howard County offers about 15 minutes of recess a day for all middle-schoolers.

Bossenmeyer said that in combating the repercussions of a lack of physical activity, schools are increasingly looked to for leadership, because that's where children spend most of their time.

"That's the easiest, strategically, public health approach," she said. "But it's very difficult because schools may be [limited] in their parameters."

In the city, where principals have autonomy to form their own class schedules, school models and budgets, recess can conflict with academic priorities and resources.

The group of Roland Park parents has asked the school's administration to shave five minutes from each of the 70-minute classes, carving out 25 minutes of recess per day. At a meeting last week, school officials said the proposal raised major scheduling and staffing concerns. They said that while parents have offered to volunteer as monitors, safety is an issue, and the recess would require trained supervisors.

Roland Park Principal Carolyn Cole said she is open to the idea of recess for the 800 middle-schoolers — the school has one of the city's largest student bodies — during lunch periods. But restructuring the school day around a 25-minute window would be disruptive, she said.

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